What is pesto?

Middle of winter maybe isn’t the time of year you would expect a blog post to be written about pesto. Especially since nine times out of ten Americans associate pesto with the Genovese basil/garlic/parmesan/pine nut combo. And if you haven’t frozen pesto you made out of basil in the summer, good luck finding enough good quality fresh basil to make Genovese pesto right now.

But pesto neither begins nor ends with pesto alla genovese.

Pesto is a sauce that originated in ancient Rome—then known as “moretum”, a ground paste made of garlic, salt, cheese, herbs, olive oil and vinegar. Later, after going through a few taste changes (most notably dropping vinegar from the list of ingredients), it became know as “pesto” a version of the Italian verb “pestare”—meaning to pound or crush. Technically, the name of the sauce speaks to the method of creation—pounding in a marble mortar with a wooden pestle—and not the flavor of the sauce at all.

So, pesto can be made out of nearly any mix you like of greens, nuts, oil, and white cheeses—and that’s why we love pesto. We love a dish that is infinitely flexible, that can be made throughout the year with ingredients that are in season at that exact moment, and that can be used in a variety of of different ways.

What can you use pesto for?

Obviously, pesto is great on pasta. It’s also an amazing sauce on pizza in place of red sauce. Mixed with a dollop of mayonnaise, slathered on slices of good bread with just a hunk of fresh in-season tomato layered in between is one of the simplest and most satisfying sandwiches in late August. Slip a tablespoon to float and slowly melt and disperse in a bowl of Italian wedding soup.

A dollop of pesto is the perfect finishing touch to a frittata or an omelet or an egg cup.

Just whipped up a salad and then realized you don’t have salad dressing? Loosen up pesto with some additional oil and a splash or two of vinegar and your salad is dressed.

Can’t eat nuts of any kind? You can replace the nut component with sunflower seeds.

Can’t or don’t eat cheese? Leave it out and replace with a few more nuts and salt for both texture and flavor.

Arugula + cashews + Romano + salt and olive oil = a peppery pesto that holds up well as a sauce for grilled steak.

Spinach + walnuts + olive oil + salt + Parmesan + a squeeze of lemon = a bright and savory pesto that, mixed with Israeli couscous or quinoa, cherry tomatoes, and shaved carrots makes a hearty vegetarian meal.

We’ve posted pesto recipes in our recipe section, and we will undoubtedly post more. We have linked to them here. But truth be told? We don't truly believe in pesto recipes. They're only ever there to give you a sense of what goes into a good pesto in general proportions. Because a pesto's ingredients are so few, how each ingredient tastes can change the pesto's final flavor drastically. And that means pesto is a sauce you simply have to taste as you go. Additionally, you must keep in mind that putting pesto on hot pasta changes the flavor—mellowing the garlic and diluting the saltiness.

All of the recipes we provide are basic, no fail recipes that will get you to a good balanced flavor, but then you should expect to add ingredients in small amounts to get to the flavor that you most prefer.

So, make pesto this weekend. In the heart of winter. It’s a deeply comforting food, and isn’t that what we need right now?

Also, in the comments section, let us know about your favorite pesto recipe or inventive ways you are using pesto in cooking.